With sincere apologies to Charles Dickens.
Last Christmas Eve, after working late doing some cut-price upgrades, I arrived home around 10:00 P.M. I opened the door to my old house and switched on a single, low-energy light. The feeble bulb's dim glow provided just enough illumination for me to prepare a meager supper.
It was a bitterly cold night, but having just paid my electric bill, I didn’t feel like lining the electricity board's pockets by running my heater. So I pulled my overcoat tight around my body, tied a scarf around my neck, and sank into my favorite armchair, supper in hand.
As I started to eat, something caught my eye. It must have been a trick of the light, but I was sure something moved in the corner of the room, just past the pile of old IBM PS2s I was saving. As I looked more closely, I could see a shape forming. I stood to get a clearer view. As the shape came into focus, it took human form. Scared but intrigued, my eyes would not move from the spirit who now stood before me. Suddenly, I recognized the figure. It was Mr. Marley, my old boss from Marley Data Services.
I still remember the first day I met him those many years ago. I was a fresh-faced boy starting my first help desk job, and he was an irritable, miserly IT veteran. "Don’t think you can steal any of those eight-inch floppies," he warned, as I shook his hand. "They’re all accounted for, and I'll know if you’re trying to hide something!"
By now the spirit was standing a mere foot from me, and I tried in vain to stay calm. "You can’t be here," I blurted out. "You’re dead!"
It was true; Marley had died in the great freeze of 1989. He was trying to keep warm with the heat from the valves of the old mainframe when the power was cut and he froze to death.
"Silence, fool!" the apparition interrupted. "Listen, lest you suffer my fate!"
I stood transfixed.
"I’m bound for all eternity by these chains," Marley bellowed, as he held up his hands. "Those chains that I forged in life are with me in the hereafter."
I could see clearly that a long chain did indeed hang from Marley's neck and body. It was fashioned from old, dumb-terminal keyboards, IDE ribbons, 5Œ-inch floppy drives, copies of WordStar, and some old full-height Winchester drives.
"I still have a few of those Winchester drives saved away in their original boxes," I thought to myself. "They'll come in handy some day."
"But Mr. Marley, I don’t understand," I said, my voice quivering at first and then growing louder. "We buried you. The whole data processing department chipped in for a wreath. We shared out your stuff. I even got a box of unopened tea bags from your desk. You can’t be here!"
"Quiet!" cried the specter. "Shut up and listen!"
I sat down.
"Tonight, you will receive three visitors. They will show you things that could save your life. Listen to them! Don’t make the same mistakes I did."
And with those words, the shape began to slowly fade until it disappeared into the "Intel inside" logo on an old 486 case I was using as a coffee table.
Not knowing what else to do, and because no one would believe what I had just experienced, I decided I would just finish my supper and go to bed. I dumped my few dinner dishes in the sink, draped my overcoat on top of my quilt, and climbed into bed, trying to put the whole event out of my mind. "It must have been something I ate," I thought.
I could afford a lie-in the next morning, since it would be Christmas Day and my office would be empty. I had begrudgingly given my diminutive and currently injured assistant, Tim Tiny, the day off. He had recently stumbled down the attic stairs while carrying a load of lightly used monochrome monitors and broken his leg. I had hoped he would show a little extra effort and volunteer to come in on Christmas anyway—but I had no such luck. Tim had wanted to spend the day with his family, instead. Well, so much for his annual bonus.
With no one else in the office to disturb me, I decided to spend the next morning formatting and relabeling old floppy disks to sell to end users. Somebody has to pay for my summer holiday! And with this happy thought in mind, I settled down and was soon asleep.
The Ghost of Techies Past
I'm not sure for how long I slept, but a bright light suddenly roused me from my slumber. Thinking I had left a light on and was wasting power, I ran to the next room to turn it off. There, a strange sight lay before me: a lad of about 19 years, wearing flared trousers and leather sandals, through which peeped white socks.
The long points of his polyester shirt collar hung outside his striped sleeveless pullover. In his hand he held a box of punch cards.
"Hi!" he said. "I am the Ghost of Techies Past. Here’s a program I wrote to print ‘Hello World’ on some listing paper then advance the paper up so you can read it. Cool, eh?" He proudly held out the box of cards.
"Great!" I muttered sarcastically. "Welcome to the 70s!"
"Listen, man, I got news for you."
Man! How I hate people who call me that.
"Who are you, and how did you get in here?" I asked.
"I told you; I am the Ghost of Techies Past. Do you know that one day it will be possible to write a letter on a personal computer without using dot commands? You will see what you are typing on a screen as you type it. I even thought of a catchy acronym to describe the process."
"Yeah, I know, WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get. Seen it, used it, got bored with it—it’s been around for years," I said, yawning.
"Damn, man, I thought that was a great idea." The ghost looked dejected.
"It was, twenty years ago. It’s old hat now."
"Well, we’re going to have a serial pointing device soon, so you won’t need to tab all over the screen to activate a command. Things are really going to start moving."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. What do you want?"
"Listen, man, I’ve got to take you on a cool road trip. We’re going to check out some cats grooving down to a mainframe."
Before I could protest, he took my hand, and everything became a blur. When the fog cleared, I was standing in a familiar room. One of the room's walls was completely covered with movable library shelving. The shelves were crammed with small black tape cartridges, and a fresh-faced youth was scurrying around grabbing tapes and loading them into massive tape drives. After each tape was loaded, the lad returned to a screen to see which one was required next. The room was bright, cold, and had no windows. The boy worked alone. On the other side of a glass partition was a room with easy chairs and a television. In this more festive area, several people were cheerfully celebrating.
The Ghost stood aside so that I could see the lone worker’s face. It was me! Okay, the lad was sixty pounds lighter and had more hair, but it was me. And I remembered the occasion well.
It was the last nightshift before Christmas, and the whole IT team had chipped in to have a party, except me. I thought the whole idea was nonsense and went about my work as usual. While I slaved away, they made merry. I had a sneaking suspicion some of their laughter was directed at me.
The last laugh was on them, though. The boss had been watching on a surveillance camera and had given me a bonus for keeping the system going all night. My sacrifice had paid off. I wanted to get ahead, and if getting ahead meant forgoing holiday parties, that was fine by me. It was a silly party anyway.
Still, the partygoers seemed as if they could not stop smiling. Some were laughing so hard that they could hardly get a breath. The young boy in the cold room had his brow furrowed, but I could see him sneaking glances through the partition.
"I’ve seen enough. Why have you brought me here?" I said, turning my back on the young lad.
"So that you could see why you are like you are."
"Take me back now. I have to go to work in the morning."
With a dejected look on his face, the Ghost waved his arm and everything was blurry again. When the fog cleared for the second time, I was once again alone in my nice, dark bedroom.
Ghost of Techies Present
Although a bit confused by what had just happened, I decided I had best get back to bed. There was still time for me to get a good night's sleep and be at the office bright and early tomorrow morning. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I dropped into a deep sleep. Unfortunately, it didn't last long.
I was unexpectedly roused from my slumber at the stroke of 1:00 A.M. by a faint ringing sound. As I slowly opened my eyes, I observed a shadowy figure standing by the window. He was dressed in what I can only describe as a salesman’s suit (outwardly flashy but of poor quality). He was tapping his foot impatiently and constantly consulting a rather gaudy wristwatch, to which the price tag was still attached.
"Come on. Come on. Let’s get to it. You really must learn to wake up within three rings. Time is money you know."
"Who are you?" I asked, finding myself adjusting well to these apparitions appearing in the dark.
He seemed pleased at this. He bounded towards me and took out his business card. He grabbed my hand and shook it with an overly energetic handshake.
I looked at the card:
"You’re the next of my visitors. Marley said you would be calling." I was getting the hang of this.
"Hah, Marley! Between you and me, I don’t think that you can safely do business with that loser!"
"He came back to warn me, so he can’t be all bad," I muttered, annoyed at the attitude of this new shade.
"There’s no room for sentiment in business. Always check the bottom line. That’s what people respect," the Ghost said, checking his watch.
"Okay, I can see you are a busy man; let’s get on with it,” he continued. “First, I need you to you sign this." He handed me a pen and piece of paper. "It proves that I actually came to see you and didn’t merely claim the lead myself." I signed the paper with my phony signature that I normally reserve for delivery notes.
He tucked the paper away and dialed a number on his cell phone.
The room became a blur, and when it cleared, we were standing inside an IT trade show booth.
"So what are you going to show me?" I said.
"Watch and learn, mate, watch and learn," the Ghost responded.
A middle-aged man approached the booth and asked if we could give him the name of a supplier that could provide upgrades to his aging stock of desktop systems.
With visible glee, the Ghost leapt into action. "You don’t want to patch and mend your old stock. Buy all new kit instead. We’ll give you a good trade show discount," he said. The Ghost proceeded to railroad this poor, unsuspecting chap into buying a load of kit without even checking his requirements. With the sale finished and the unwary customer sent on his merry way, the Ghost turned to me and said, "That’s how it’s done. I’ve just covered January’s target in one sale. You try with the next one."
"But," I stammered, "You didn’t even find out what type of systems he had. They might just have needed a RAM upgrade."
"Stuff that!" the Ghost replied. "An upgrade like that is only worth a few hundred. My commission is the important thing. I don’t ask customers what they want. I tell them. We buy low and sell high, the sales force gets a nice bonus, and everybody is happy. Get a grip on yourself, mate. Yes sir, what can we do for you?"
He darted away to pounce on another browser who had stopped to look at the large picture of a scantily clad lady, who was somehow supposed to make you think of CD burners. I wondered at the gullibility of some people.
So this was it. It wasn’t about service. It wasn’t about people. It was all about parting people from their money. The IT industry wasn’t as golden as I had imagined it to be. After all the long hours and all the hard work, my love for the technology had turned into the love of money.
I thought for a moment about things that were more important than pleasing the area sales manager. Yet I still found myself slipping backwards. I went from health and happiness to thoughts of reselling used floppies for a tidy profit. Was I no better than this slick Ghost of Techies Present?
"I don’t want to see anymore!" I shouted. "Get me out of here!" The ghost took out his cell phone, dialed, and I was soon returned to my nice, warm bed. As I lay there, trembling in the cold and dark, I tried again to focus on what was real and important in life. I tried to remember the last time I had actually helped an end user, the last time I recovered an accidentally deleted file, or fixed a screen flicker. To my painful dismay, the memories eluded me. Had I done nothing helpful these many years? After a few minutes, I slipped into an uneasy sleep.
Ghost of Techies Yet To Come
I awoke again to a soft beeping noise. I looked at the clock and it still showed 1:00 A.M. I turned on the bedside light and saw a small handheld device sitting on my nightstand. It was the size of a five-pound note and nearly as thin. One side of it lit up, and I could see a Desktop theme on it. A man’s face appeared on the screen. It was a small round face, with reddish hair and thick-framed glasses.
It spoke, "You have selected the default Classic Avatar Interface; say ‘Yes’ to accept these settings."
"Yes," I mumbled, picking up the unit. On the small screen, the man started to talk.
"I am a fully interactive computing interface. I can deal with direct voice input as well as neural transfer and remote synchronization from other WinLux XXXL units. I also upgrade automatically, whenever a new software patch is released."
I thought that this was some kind of bad dream. The earlier ghosts with their chains, 70s attire, and salesmen’s cologne had been bad enough. But a device with neural transfer capability was a nightmare; it would be like having your head bugged.
The words "Head bugged…" scrolled across the screen.
"How would you stop people from knowing your thoughts?" I wondered.
The Avatar appeared again.
"The World President has decreed that uncontrolled personal thought is not in the interest of the common good. He has therefore acquired the copyright to all personal thoughts. You will need to pay an annual license fee in order to keep having them. I am programmed to report back any unlicensed thoughts you may have. Your evaluation license will expire in 30 days."
"Could this really be the future of IT?" I thought.
"Yes. I am here to show you your future."
Deciding this whole reading-my-thoughts thing was a little odd, I turned the unit over to see if I could deactivate it. The back was plain plastic with no sign of a way to open the unit.
"All Avatar-based units are factory-sealed for life. There is no service option." The blasted thing was reading my thoughts again.
Without warning, the room became a blur. When my eyes could focus again, I was standing on a dark street, holding the PDA in my hand. All along the street were thin, pale figures dressed in rags.
They called to us as we walked along the street:
"Spare a quid for an out-of-work PC engineer?"
"Help me, mate—my kids are starving."
"Lend a hand to an old, redundant project manager?"
I hurried along. The PDA seemed to pull me towards a darkened yard at the end of the street.
A rusty, iron gate swung open when I approached, and I went through it. A beam of light from the PDA lit up the scene before me. The fenced yard was full of gravestones from front to back and side to side. Most of them were old, crumbling, and leaning towards the weed-covered ground. Moss grew on the front of the stones, obscuring most of the writing there. But I could still make out a few of the stones’ inscriptions. There was Bill Detwiler, “The best Edlin user there ever was, may he rest in peace,” and Mike Walton, “Who stayed by his Mac until driven mad by Type 2 errors.” In the corner of the cemetery, a newer gravestone stood tall among the decaying markers around it.
I pointed to it with my free hand. I didn’t need to say anything.
“Yes, that is your gravestone,” the Avatar said.
For just a moment, I felt a surge of pride that my stone would be so tall and majestic among the others there.
My pride was short-lived.
“The other stones are crumbling and leaning because they are old,” the PDA said. “Your stone will be old as well one day, and another new stone will take its place as the best.”
I approached the stone and read the inscription:
"Tell me this isn’t how it will be! Tell me there’s some hope for me! Tell me there’s some hope for our industry! I’ll be a better tech. I’ll help the customers. I’ll support them without robbing them. I won’t laugh at them behind their backs. I’ll remember what each ghost has taught me. Their spirits and the spirit of Christmas will stay with me—throughout the year. I can change. I am changed!"
I fell to the ground sobbing.
After a few minutes, I slowly opened my eyes. The PDA was gone and in its place was the small shaving mirror I keep on my bedside table. I often used it to reflect light from the street lamps onto my book—to save the cost of having the light on.
The sun was shining in through my window, reflecting off the mirror and onto my face. I was sprawled out on the floor. I quickly rose and ran to my bedroom window. It was a beautiful day. The snow was crisp and white on the ground, and the voices of happy children sliced through the air, their laughter ringing out as they experimented with new sledges and skates. Bells chimed from church towers, and the sound rang clear through the frosty air.
It was Christmas morning. I hadn't missed it. There was still time!
I quickly dressed and went out into the streets. There was someone I had to see. I went first to a local all-hours shop and purchased a bottle of their best champagne.
"Merry Christmas," I said joyously to those I met along the way. There was a smile on my face and a long-absent warmth in my heart. I had not felt this happy for many years.
I traveled next to an electronics store that was having a special Christmas sale. I purchased a new digital camera and had it smartly wrapped. The grocer's was my next stop. I bought a ready-made Christmas dinner. It came with a turkey and all the trimmings. I was now ready to visit my final destination. With parcels in hand, I hailed a taxi and was on my way to my assistant Tim's flat.
As I approached the dilapidated building, a wave of guilt washed over me. Tim had been a faithful subordinate. He had never asked for much and had patiently endured my unfriendly disposition. He deserved far more than the pittance I paid him, and I would make sure he got it. But not before I had a little fun.
I climbed the rickety stairs to Tim's second-floor apartment and knocked fiercely at his door. I heard someone hobble to the entry, and the door opened. There was Tim with a rather bewildered look on his face. Wasting no time, he invited me into the apartment, still unsure of why I was there.
Tim's accommodations were as sparse as his family's Christmas dinner. His wife and children sat round the kitchen table, and on it was a small chicken, a bowl of Brussels sprouts, and a loaf of plain bread—meager pickings indeed.
With as stern a face as I could muster, I held out my parcels and said, "Tim, I've brought these hard drives that I need you to reformat by tomorrow morning."
Sheepishly, Tim responded, "Oh… oh… okay."
I sat my parcels on the kitchen table and picked up the one that held the new camera.
"Be extra careful with this one," I said. "It's for a special person, and I don't want it damaged. In fact, you should open it now so I'll know it was working when I gave it to you."
Tim's wife and children looked on with astonishment. Who could be so heartless as to show up on Christmas Day asking for work to be done? Indeed, as my former self, I would not have thought twice about doing this very thing, but the new me had different plans.
Tim slowly pulled back the parcel's brown paper covering. When he saw the brightly colored Christmas paper and tag bearing his name, he looked up in confusion. It seemed he was even more surprised than when I had first appeared at his door.
"Merry Christmas, Tim," I said with a broad smile and enthusiastic handshake. Tim looked at me as if I were mad. "You've done such a good job these many years, and I want to show my appreciation. Well, go ahead, open it." I nodded toward the gift. Tim did so and almost fell over. His eyes grew wide as he saw the new camera. "Thank you, Mr. Dray," was all he could manage.
I turned my attention to the dinner and Tim's wife.
"I'm sorry I haven't been round more often," I apologized to her, taking the champagne bottle from underneath my jacket. "I've brought a little something to eat and drink, and I hope you all enjoy it." I began removing my ready-made Christmas banquet from its containers. Soon the Tiny's table was filled with a feast fit for a king, and I turned to go.
"Wait, you must stay for dinner," Tim said, quickly grabbing my arm. "Yes, please," repeated Mrs. Tiny.
"I would be honored,” I said truthfully.
For the rest of the day we laughed, sang Christmas songs, and dined on many a culinary delight, except for Brussels sprouts, which are horrible.
To them and to all of you, I wish a very merry Christmas!
We hope you enjoyed Jeff Dray's take on Dickens' holiday classic, and, like Jeff, we want to wish you all a happy holiday season. As always, we want to know how you think we are doing. Feel free to post a comment to this article and share your thoughts.